A Time of Torment, p.1John Connolly
Also by John Connolly
A TIME OF TORMENT
First published in Great Britain in 2016 by Hodder & Stoughton
An Hachette UK company
Copyright © Bad Dog Books Limited 2016
The right of John Connolly to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.
ISBN 978 1 444 75159 8
Hodder & Stoughton Ltd
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London EC4Y 0DZ
For David Torrans and Claudia Edelmann of
No Alibis Bookstore, Belfast
Like a dog, he hunts in dreams.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892), ‘Locksley Hall’
They’re circling now, then falling, descending in a slow gyre, dropping so gently that their approach can barely be discerned. They are hawks in the form of men, and the one who leads them is a being doubly transformed: lost and found, human and bird; youngest of them, yet strangely old. He has endured, and in this endurance he has been forged anew. He has seen a world beyond this one. He has glimpsed the face of a new god.
He is at peace with himself, and so he will wage war.
Faster they come, the spiral narrowing, the three almost as one, their coats mantling in the chill fall air; and not a whisper of their approach, not a passing shadow nor a sparrow startled, only the stillness of a world waiting to be shattered, and the perfect balance of a life, perhaps, to be saved and a life, perhaps, to be ended.
The clouds part, pierced by a shaft of light that catches them in flight, as though they have attracted, however briefly, the attention of a deity long slumbering but now awake, roused by martial clamor and the raising of armies in the name of the Captain, the One Who Waits Behind The Glass, the God of Wasps.
And the old god will set His child against them, and the hawks will follow.
It was a long time since the Gray Man had considered the possibility of being caught, for the Gray Man did not truly exist. He had no physical form. He dwelt alongside another, sharing the same skin, and only at the final breath might there have been a glimpse of the depths of his true nature, although even then he preferred to remain unseen, concealed in darkness. He was not above causing pain, although this was as much a matter of whim as any particular tastes he might have possessed. A death was only the beginning, which was why he had survived undetected for so long. He could make a kill last for years. Physical pain was finite, for ultimately the body would surrender the soul, but emotional agony was capable of infinite variations, and the subtlest of modifications might release from the wound a new torrent of distress.
In the persona he presented to the world, the Gray Man was a reverse chameleon. His name was Roger Ormsby, and he was small, colorful, and greatly liked. He was in his early sixties, with an impish humor. His hair and beard were white, but neatly trimmed. He proudly carried before him his little potbelly, like a happily expectant mother advertising the pleasure she takes in her burden. He favored red suspenders and vests of unusual design. He wore tweed in winter and linen in summer, preferring creams and tans but offsetting them with tastefully bright ties and handkerchiefs. He could play the piano, and waltz and two-step with ease, but inside Ormsby was a foul thing animating him as a puppeteer works a marionette, and only an expert might have detected the sterility of his renditions of beloved classics as his fingers moved across the keys, or the joyless precision of every move he made on a dance floor.
Ormsby did not discuss politics or religion. He took only frivolous subjects seriously, and as a consequence was much valued as a dinner guest. He was a happy widower, faithful to the memory of his departed wife to the extent that he would do no more than flirt with the less lonely widows of Champaign, Illinois, but not so in love with the ghost of his spouse as to allow the loss of her to cloud his spirit or the spirits of others. He was always in demand as a companion for theater, movies, and the occasional light opera, and the absence of a sexual component to his relationships meant that he moved in and out of social situations with ease. He was a Friend of the Library, a member of the Audubon Society, a regular fixture at lectures on local history, and a generous – but not overgenerous – donor to good c
And so Roger Ormsby bobbed through life in his vibrant plumage, advertising his presence, hiding nothing, but when he closed his front door behind him the artificial light in his eyes was suffocated, and the face of the Gray Man was pendent like a dead moon in the blackness of his pupils.
This is what Roger Ormsby did – or, if you wish, what the Gray Man did, for they were two aspects of the same entity, like a coat and its lining. He typically targeted his victims carefully, spending months in preparation. He had been known to engage in crimes of opportunity, but they were riskier now than they once were, because cameras were everywhere. In addition, it was difficult to gauge just what one might be appropriating in such a situation, for Ormsby required a very particular set of social circumstances from his victims. They couldn’t be loners, isolated from their families and friends. He did not desire discards. The more beloved they were, the better. He wanted children who were cherished. He wanted teenagers from happy homes. He wanted good mothers of children beyond the age of infancy. He wanted emotional engagement.
He wanted many lives that he could slowly and painstakingly destroy over a period of years, even decades.
Ormsby made people disappear, then watched as those who loved them were left to wonder at their fate. He understood the half-life of hope: it is not despair that destroys us, but its opposite. Hope is the winding, despair the unwinding. Despair brings with it the possibility of an ending. Taken to the extreme, its logical conclusion is death. But hope sustains. It can be exploited.
Ormsby’s actions had caused some to take their own lives, but he considered this a failure, both on his part and theirs. The ones he killed were merely the first victims, and also the least interesting to him. He liked to watch those who remained as they tried to cope with what had been visited upon them. He knew they would wake each morning and briefly forget that which they had lost: a mother, a son, a daughter. (Ormsby avoided taking adult men. He was stronger than he looked, but not so much that he believed he could tackle a grown man, especially not as he grew older.) Then, seconds after waking, they would remember again, and that was where the pleasure lay for Ormsby.
He was not above goading, reminding, but that was a dangerous business. He had sent items to relatives in the mail – a necklace, a watch, a child’s shoe – to enjoy the commotion that followed. He had forced children that he had taken to write letters to their mothers and fathers, informing them that they were in good health and being looked after. (Adults, too, might be persuaded to write similar missives, but only under threat of physical harm.) He might wait years before sending such notes, depending on the age of the child and the reaction of the parents. He dropped the letters in mailboxes far from home, often when he was on vacation, and always ensured they were not overlooked by cameras.
The Internet made it easier for him to monitor the progress of his real victims, but Ormsby was wary of leaving an electronic trail. He concealed his searches amid random examinations of newspapers and magazines, often in public libraries or the kind of cyber cafés frequented by immigrants. He did not attend public gatherings for the disappeared, or church services at which the congregation prayed for their safe return, because he knew the authorities monitored such events. It was usually enough for Ormsby to know that the suffering he had inflicted continued unabated. If nothing else, the Gray Man had a vivid imagination. This was how Ormsby could survive for so long without killing: as the years went by, so too his store of victims increased. He could dip in and out of destroyed lives. He was an emotional vampire.
Now, as he drove home, he thought that this metaphor had a pleasing precision under the circumstances. He recalled a scene from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, in which the Count returns to his castle and throws to his three vampire brides an infant contained in a sack. At that moment, the trunk of Ormsby’s car also contained a child in a sack. Her name was Charlotte Littleton. She was nine years old, and represented one of his rare crimes of opportunity: a child playing with a ball as the afternoon sunlight died, an open gate, the ball drifting into an empty street of big houses set back from the road …
Good fortune: God – if He existed – finding His attention briefly distracted.
And inside, the Gray Man danced.
Ormsby’s wife had died suddenly when she was in her early forties and her husband was in his mid-thirties. It was a blessing, of a kind. By then, Ormsby, the Gray Man, had already begun playing his long game, and was concerned that his wife, who was not a stupid woman, and even actively curious, might begin to take an interest in his activities. Sometimes he wondered if, had her heart not simply failed unexpectedly while she was testing the firmness of avocados at a sidewalk market – such a curious detail, and one that had led him to avoid avocados ever since – he might have been forced to get rid of her. He wasn’t even certain why he had married her to begin with. He suspected he had craved some form of stability, given his own family background of divorce and acrimony, and a mother whose maternal instincts extended no further than occasionally taking it upon herself to heat some mac and cheese instead of delegating the task to her only son. Ormsby’s relationship with his late wife had been affectionate, if almost entirely passionless, a situation that had not troubled either of them unduly.
But perhaps also, even then, he was already creating a framework for his life, and an identity for himself, that would arouse the least amount of suspicion: Roger Ormsby, contentedly if unexceptionally married, with a job selling painting and decorating supplies that required him to spend time on the road, staying in dull motels, mostly eating alone, but always watching, always listening.
He heard a thumping from the trunk of his car and turned up the volume on the radio: a news program on NPR, which was just the kind of show to which a man like Roger Ormsby might have been expected to listen. He used to smoke a pipe too, puffing contentedly on it as he drove, but then he’d learned about throat and tongue cancer, and decided that Roger Ormsby would be sensible enough to let this particular pleasure go. He missed the pipe, though. It had given him something to do with his hands.
He’d have to kill the girl quickly, of course. The unplanned ones were always difficult. He might not have taken her had winter not recently crept into the air, giving him an excuse to light the furnace in his big old house. He’d spend the night questioning her, find out as much as he could about her family, then put an end to her: a single blow to the head, knocking her out cold, then strangulation. He didn’t want her to suffer.
After that, the game could begin.
He fantasized about the months and years to come.
And the shadows that were following him, the arc of the hunters, went entirely unnoticed.
In a curious way, Ormsby had been inspired to pursue his particular appetites by base conflicts in lands he had never visited, and in which he had little interest on a political or social level. He had found himself fascinated by the actions of the military dictatorships in Argentina and Chile, which routinely ‘disappeared’ those with whom they differed, leaving the families to mourn phantoms, nearly certain that their loved ones were dead but unable to let go of them until they could identify their remains and lay them in the ground, although the chances of this were remote when the military’s favorite methods of dispatch included dropping the bound bodies of living captives into the sea from aircraft, or, in the case of the Chileans, using railway ties to ensure that the corpses didn’t float to the surface.
And then there were the Irish terrorists who dragged widowed mothers from their homes and tortured them in secret before shooting them in the head and burying their bodies on some desolate stretch of beach. When the deed was done, they returned with clear consciences to their own families and communities, there to pass the desolate, orphane
Ormsby’s house appeared before him. He turned into the driveway and activated the garage door. The garage connected directly to the house through the utility room, which in turn had another door leading to the basement. It meant that he was able to move his victims easily, and without being noticed. He pulled into the garage, killed the engine, and hit the button on his key fob a second time, causing the door to begin its descent. He was already out of his car, and poised to open the trunk, when he saw that the door had frozen.
Ormsby stared at it. He tried the button again. Nothing happened. The door didn’t even jerk slightly, as might have been expected if the mechanism had somehow become fouled. He took a flashlight from the shelf and checked the door’s workings, but could see nothing wrong. The street beyond appeared empty, but the door was not even a quarter of the way down, and while the light was fading, it was not yet dark enough to guarantee that he wouldn’t be seen by one of his neighbors if he tried to move the child.
Regardless of this, he couldn’t just leave the door unsecured. The garage was connected to his house alarm, and the button on the fob automatically deactivated it. His home was now vulnerable, and it wasn’t as if he could call someone to take a look at the door, not with a child tied in a sack in the trunk of his car. The girl was kicking again: he could hear her, and the lid of the trunk shook with the impact.
He tried the button one more time and, miraculously, the door began to descend. He held his breath until it stopped again an inch or two from the floor. It wasn’t perfect, but from outside it would appear closed. He’d worry about it again in the morning, once the girl was dead.
Ormsby turned on the garage’s interior light. Only now did he open the trunk of the car. The child in the sack was wriggling, and screaming against the material. He’d managed to get cable ties around her hands by working fast, but not her legs. They remained free, and the best he’d been able to do was cinch the drawstring of the sack around her shins and tie it off. He’d been forced to hit her once to stun her, but he hadn’t enjoyed it, and had no desire to do it again.
A Time of Torment by John Connolly / Thrillers & Crime / Horror / Mystery & Detective have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes